Aesthetics-in-Performance: 3-day Seminar in Heggodu, 27-29 Dec 2014

Aesthetics-in-Performance, a three day seminar was held in Ninasam, Heggodu from 27th to 29th of December 2014. It was jointly organized by Ninasam, Heggodu and Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities, Manipal University and was supported by Shree Narayana Guru Mandira Samithi, Mumbai.

December 27, 2014; Saturday

In his opening remarks, K.V. Akshara provided an overview of the theme of the conference. He acknowledged the guests and the speakers who were attending the seminar. After duly thanking the Naryanaguru Mandira Samithi, whose generous contribution made the seminar possible, he introduced the participants to the background and the theme of the seminar.  He spoke of the earlier collaboration between scholars to the study of Natyaśastra as a text and the richness of the material that inspired the theme of the current seminar. The discussion on aesthetic theory with a view to apply it to performance in general and the relevance of the spectator to practitioners in particular was highlighted. He also indicated that the concept of the spectator as a vīkṣaka who is a mere watcher versus that of a prekṣaka, a ‘good-audience’ needs further discussion. He also raised the questions about the application of abstract aesthetic categories to the actual performances that are inheritors of both Western and Eastern traditions of practice.

Following this, in the same vein, Sundar Sarukkai set out the conceptual framework of the seminar. He pointed out that the category of the spectator would enable an engagement with the conceptual notion of objective aesthetic judgements. He pointed out that the very act of creating objects of art through assigning aesthetic value to them disengages the spectator from any subjective involvement with the art. Discussing the phenomenon of art and aesthetics in Western thought, he also discussed the difficulty of appropriating traditional concepts into contemporary practice. He also problematised the idea of spectator and comparative frameworks of aesthetic theories.

After these opening remarks, the first session by Rustom Barucha, JNU Delhi  touched upon the  central theme of the seminar “Spectatorship in Theater and Performance: a cross cultural perspective.” Drawing from literature on aesthetic theories as well as his rich experience with performances, Barucha spoke of the diversity implicit in spectatorship and also the afterlife of an aesthetic experience that the spectator carries in to the everyday world. He also highlighted the interactions between the actor and the spectator that takes place in applied theater as well as in some spaces of traditional theater. He discussed various ideas prevalent in the methods of performance that implicitly dismiss the spectatorship. He emphasized that the spectator co-creates the performance and in contemporary performances newer forms of participation were opening up that could be informed by a framework of Rasa theory.

These three sessions set a foundational background for the participants in both the idea of aesthetics and the theme of spectator from different perspectives. This was then followed by the presentation of a paper by Sankar Venkateswaran on “Theater of the mind.” Drawing from his work with theater that was silent and used non-verbal actions in performances, he claimed that this was a physical theater but a theater of the mind. He posited that watching performances produced an affect of synchronicity in the audience which allowed the boundaries between actor-spectator to dissolve. He further explained how audiences who are sentient gatherings, co-create the experience of the theater.

His session was relevant to the seminar as one of his critically acclaimed plays “Kaḷeduhōdavaru” (based on a story by Samuel Beckett) was performed at the seminar the same evening, demonstrating his engagement with the imaginative spaces of the audience mind. Performed by the students of Ninasam Theatre Institute, this play was one of the highlights of the seminar.

A lively question and answer session and general discussion followed the two formal sessions in the morning and the audience were not only challenging but also contributing to the various concepts and questions raised in the session.

The post lunch session of day one was intriguing with two specialists in Rasa theory presenting their views on the Spectator-actor relationship. Radhavallabh Tripathi, an eminent scholar in the field of rasa aesthetics began with a background explanation of the concept of rasa. He pointed out that aesthetics of rasa are not limited to the idea of relish alone but is also connected to pain. He discussed the various manifestations of rasa in the aesthetics such as nāṭyarasa, kāvyarasa, chitrarasa and so on. After his discussion on the idea of rasa as including painful and repulsive moods, he went on to elucidate different types of viewers mentioned in the nāṭyaśāstra. He dwelt upon the prekṣaka, the audience, the prāśnika, the member of a jury and their relationship to the performers and aesthetic judgments.

J Sreenivas Murthy, a Sanskrit scholar continued the theme of Indian aesthetics and the concept of the spectator through his presentation titled “Soham—Actor Spectator Relationship” His talk explained the background conditions that are required of the actor for producing a rasa experience in the spectator. Using concepts in Indian aesthetic thought such as naṭa, (performer) and abhineta (actor who places a character before a spectator) he explained how the process of depersonalization of aesthetic experience takes place. He indicated that the actor’s witness state during the portrayal of a character, saha (he) allows the viewer to ignore the actor and see the character being portrayed. Rasa is not just the portrayal of the mood but is about rasa in character for the poet, rasa in actor is relevant to the actor as a performer, and rasa in a spectator is important through the relationship that one has with the actor.

December 28, 2014; Sunday

The second day of the seminar began with a discussion on the previous evening’s performance of ‘Kaḷeduhōdavaru’ directed by Sankar Venkateshwaran, performed by the students of Ninasam Theatre Institute. The performers answered many questions regarding the way the play was conceived and also about their own response to Shankar’s form of theater.

The next session by Apaar Kumar introduced the idea of Kantian aesthetics to the participants. After a discussion on the Kantian idea of aesthetic judgment, he extended the idea of aesthetic judgment as a combination of the faculties of imagination and understanding. He distinguished sensory pleasure from aesthetic judgment and discussed its application to the field of art appreciation. The following session by Dhanwanti Nayak on “Memesis and Spectatorship” began with the speaker describing the historical connection between the art and Mimesis from the Greek tradition. The ideas of art as imitation of reality and the Platonic conceptualisation of art were discussed. She then traced the history of conventions of performance to a certain period in West Europe that have dictated norms around performance time, space and presentation. Finally she laid out in detail the five conceptual types of Mimesis that were relevant to understand its significance to aesthetic theory.

MK Ragavendra’s session introduced the idea of spectatorship with the medium of cinema. He traced the two movements of cinematic production, realism and expressionism. He also then highlighted the connection between theater in India and its relation to film making and there for a sense of aesthetics that involves not only depiction of reality but also the conveying of a “higher truth” that the sensitized experiencer could obtain.  The Rasa is not present in the art object but in the spectator.

Jayachandran Palazhy’s talk on ‘exploring ambiguous threads of audience performance relationships’ brought to the seminar the perspective of an actual performer. Recounting from his numerous experiences with both traditional and contemporary performances, he recounted how the actors displayed psychophysical transformations during performance. Aspects of time, space and body in performance as well as the spiritual background of some performances were discussed. He noted that silences and sounds as well as the empathy of the actor- spectator relationship is important for aesthetic experience.

A discussion on these sessions had conversations and questions that dwelled at length on the question of training audiences and the influence of the spectator on the writer and actor. The idea of absorption of the audience in a performance was also discussed.

Following this there was a presentation in Kannada, by Laxmisha Tolpadi, which was later translated into English by Madhava Chippali. Tolpadi’s lecture on the topic ‘what does the Rasa process mean for our life’ addressed the concept of sādhāraṇīkaraṇa loosely translated as generalization. He detailed the process of rasa creation in the interaction of the sthāyi bhāva and the sancāri bhāva that manifests the already present rasa in the spectator. The importance of a special state of awareness that creates the experience of sahṛdaya, a sympathetic viewer was indicated with examples from poetry and epic literature.

The end of Day Two was a performance ‘C Sharp, C Blunt’ by MD Pallavi and team. The play used a unique experimental method to forefront gender issues, and the impact of new technologies in our lives. There was also an attempt at bridging the gap between audience and the actor in trying to include members of the audience into the narrative of the play through some interactive elements.

December 29, 2014; Monday

The third day of the seminar began with a discussion with the performers on the way the play ‘C Sharp, C Blunt’ was conceptualised and the actor’s own responses to the audience. The idea of manipulation verses influence of the audience was also deeply debated.

The first presentation of the day by MA Hegde highlighted the role of the ‘spectator in Indian aesthetics.’ The idea that an audience needs to prepared to receive the rasa experience was reiterated by the speaker. He described that the poet and the audience needed the common ground of emotional experience that was devoid of the personal to undergo a Rasa experience. Drawing from Rajashekhara’s classification of the imagination required to capture an art experience as the creative and the receptive imagination, Hegde also delineated the enhancers and the spoilers of the rasa experience.

Umakanth Bhat elaborated on the ‘evocation of the rasa and the spectator.’ He raised an important point about the awakening of the rasa experience or rasajāgara. Illustrating in his talk, through a description of a particular performance in Yakshagana of Bhasmasura by Kelamane Shivarama Hegde, he highlighted the triangular relation between the writer actor and the spectator. An interesting aspect of the example was the enactment of silence and anger that had to be conveyed through the medium of sound and dialogue. The conversion of a mere watcher, darśaka into a prekṣaka, an involved spectator, takes place through the actor’s effort in translating the poet’s intention appropriately. MA Hegde and Umakanth Bhat spoke in Kannada and they were translated by Madhava Chippali.

The final session of the seminar was a panel discussion of the main concepts and contexts, explored in the seminar. Newer ideas of the digital spectator and the need to include aspects of diversity of audience were raised. An important discussion on the changing nature of performance in contemporary worlds and the need to adopt concepts from the rasa theory that are not limited to the nāṭyaśāstra and address breakaways from these traditions were also discussed. Participants of the seminar also conveyed their thoughts and reflection on different aspects of spectatorship, acting and the different mediums of expressions. Ways to further conversations and interactions on this area were suggested to the organizers.

Overall the seminar was an enriching experience perhaps resulting in deeper reflections on the concept of aesthetics and performance. The interaction between Western and non-Western theories of aesthetics produced many debatable points and convergences. While those engaged in theory were exposed to the world of artists and performers and their reflections, the performers also were able to engage with the theoretical presupposition that form a basis of their practice.


Report prepared by Meera Baindur


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